In thinking about returning to Montana in 2012 and carrying out a huge “re-survey” of the places I had explored for the state historic preservation plan process 30 years earlier, Butte was high on my list of priorities. Not that the city and its surroundings had been given little attention in the early 1980s–the Copper City was already recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and a team of historians, architects, and engineers had just finished a large study of its built environment for the Historic American Building Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record. No, I wanted to go back because by 1985 many people counted Butte down and out, yet it had survived and started to reinvent itself. Not
as a ghost town or the skeleton of a great mining city but as a revitalized place, both economically and culturally, centered in a strong core community, even though the challenges in front of it remain daunting, even overwhelming at times.
The environmental degradation left when the hard rock mines shut down is one burden that Butte has shouldered, with the help of the federal superfund program. Still, no matter how scientifically this landscape has been “cleaned up,” it remained scarred, and it is a far different challenge to build back hope into a place stripped of its life. Yet high over the city is a sign of the change to come in the Mountain Con Mine site.
Still labeled as a Mile High and a Mile Deep place, the mine property is stunning, not only for its technological assertion–imagine working that high, and going that deep–but for its conversion into the walking/hiking/biking trails that encircle the city and present it with such potential as a recreational landscape.
Transformation, that it is what strikes me as I wander down the trail and into Butte’s famous, or is it infamous, “Uptown” district. Butte is far from the place it was 30 years
ago, with all sorts of signs of new investment, new pride, and community identity. It may have lost a step, or two, and its swagger may not be quite as exaggerated as it was in the mid-20th century, but it remains a place with its own feel, its own funk. For me, the reopening of the M&M Bar on Main Street–a legendary dive once shuttered, reopened, and shuttered again–gives me hope for Butte in the 21st century. Around the corner is
another institution, Gamer’s Cafe, which is situated within the marvelous Victorian eclecticism of the Curtis Music Hall of 1892.
Both establishments are for locals but visitors are tolerated, even welcomed. Indeed a degree of openness and acceptance have grown in Butte, a marked change from when the city’s Chinese residents lived and operated businesses on the edge of Uptown, along
Mercury Street; at the same time the sex trade was alive and well to the east of that same street in a series of boarding houses and hotels. The Dumas Brothel, discussed in an earlier post, is listed in the National Register and its future as an adaptive reuse project and place for public interpretation is promising but not yet realized. African Americans in
early 20th century Butte lived even farther down the hill from Uptown, in a small neighborhood around Idaho Street and the Shaffers African Methodist Episcopal Church, now a pentecostal meeting house.
Uptown today is more a place for everyone, and has become the center of the community’s identity. It is easy to see why: massive, soaring buildings like the Metals Bank and Trust Tower and Hotel Finlen lend architectural dignity to the surroundings. Early 20th century classicism gives character and substance to Metals Bank whereas the Finlen has a classy
Renaissance Revival-style skin but then it has a spectacular contemporary Colonial Revival interior design, reminding us of Butte’s resurgence during the heyday of the Berkeley Pit boom from the mid-1950s through the turbulent 1960s.
The Hennessy Block is another commercial landmark, from the city’s founding generation, that has looked for a long-term solution for decades now. Built in 1898 with support from mine magnate Marcus Daly, the building housed what most consider to be the state’s first full-fledged department store, headed by and named for Daniel Hennessy. Minneapolis architect Frederick Kees designed it in a Renaissance Revival style. In 1901 the Anaconda Copper Company moved its executive offices to the top of the building, making it perhaps the leading corporate landmark in the city.
The massive building still dominates the Uptown building, making its closure in Butte in 1980 that more disturbing for residents. When I did my preservation plan work in 1984-1985 the issue of what to do with the Hennessy was at the forefront. By the end of the decade, ENTECH renovated the building and reopened it fully for business. In 2010 came the popular Hennessy Market–giving the growing number of Uptown residents a grocery store once again.
The Sliver Bow Club building (1906-7) also has shifted its purpose, from being the stately and eloquent clubhouse of the city’s elite to becoming a place for public offices and meetings in its once exclusive spaces. Originally conceived by the same Spokane architects who designed the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park, according to recent research by museum curator and preservationist Patty Dean, the building’s architects ended up being Link and Haire, the noted Montana architectural firm.
The interior design came yet from another important firm, William A. French and Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. Here you find one of the state’s best “Arts and Crafts Movement” themed interiors–and one of the best in the entire West.
The interior design speaks loudly to the gender and class focus of the social club. Its success set there table for Link and Haire’s next Butte masterpiece, the Beaux Arts-styled Silver Bow County Courthouse (1910-1912). Few public spaces in the state, save, perhaps the State Capitol, rival the Butte courthouse for its ornate exterior and interior, representing an overstatement of public authority and power in a city where a handful of mining interests made so many of the decisions.
Two years after it opened, the courthouse was not a refuge for those in need but a barracks for the state militia during the violence of 1914. Today, however, it is most definitely the people’s house, and was duly celebrated during its 100th birthday in 2012. It is part of the city’s distinguished public landscape, including the Victorian City Hall and the Beaux Arts classicism of the Police Department.
Of course, there is much more to see and say about Uptown Butte, but hopefully this is enough to show community pride at work, the value of historic preservation, and a proud city on the upswing, despite the obstacles before it.